No one plans on getting hurt when traveling abroad. I myself have never mapped out the closest hospital to my hostel. Nearest café or bar? Sure. I don’t intend to break a bone or become very ill, so that’s not top of mind for me when I’m anxiously packing my backpack. I mean, really, what’s the worse that could happen?
About this time last year, Wes and I were exploring London and enjoying the Olympics as ticketholders with my brother-in-law and another couple. We were half way through our two-week trip when our experience was turned on its heels. We walked out of Tower Hill tube (subway) station to an unobstructed view of the Tower of London. Brandon (my brother-in-law) and I stepped up onto a ledge about a foot off the ground to take photos. When Brandon stepped down from the ledge, he caught the side of his foot in the drain lip and came tumbling to his back. In unrestricted agony he repeatedly rolled from his stomach to his back.
Brandon had rolled his ankle. It didn’t appear broke and he could put some pressure on it, but he decided he wasn’t going to walk to other side of the Tower of London with the rest of us. Just below the plaza was a temporary bar and viewing area for the Olympics. Perhaps a little alcohol would ease the pain? When we met back up with him, he was sitting on a lush couch with his leg propped up and wrapped in ice. Already you could start to see his ankle swell.
I recalled my mother telling me that you could buy ibuprofen with codeine over the counter in England. Along with an ankle support from Boots (pharmacy), it would do wonders to keep Brandon moving.
Brandon’s ankle ended up turning black and blue and swelling badly. “I think I should go home,” he told us. What? Really? None of us knew if it would be more cost-effective to buy a plane ticket home or to go to a hospital in a foreign country. Not a gamble you really want to make, right? Brandon decided to take his chances on the hospital.
My uncle graciously offered to take us to Darenth Valley Hospital, also known as ‘Death Valley’ to locals. “Many go in but never come out.” We sat in the waiting room for an hour alongside an elderly woman who was bleeding from her head and a teenage boy who had broke his arm after falling off his dirt bike.
Having British relatives I knew that they got free healthcare, but I wasn’t sure if it applied to us as visitors. I often heard the negatives of socialized medicine, and I experienced disappointment with England’s system when it came to the treatment of my relatives. I never understood why someone with cancer would have to be put on a 2-3 month waiting list for treatment. But, as we were about to experience first hand, it is free healthcare. Brandon walked out of the hospital with an x-ray, soft cast, crutches and codeine without dropping a penny, er pence. Brandon had gambled and won.
Though a bad sprain, he was grateful it wasn’t broke and now he had enough support on his ankle to hobble all over town. That cast intimately knew the streets of London.
We didn’t know what the hospital bill would be until leaving. That’s a risk not all are willing to take. Since free healthcare while traveling abroad isn’t always an option, it pays to make sure you’re covered in the event of injury. You don’t have to spend a great deal of time planning for the unexpected, but it helps to do a little research before you travel. Here are some options to consider:
1. Ask your medical insurance company if you’re covered when traveling out of the country.
2. Buy a short-term policy to cover you while traveling. A list of U.S. providers can be found on the Bureau of Consular Affairs website.
3. Major credit card companies often offer travel accident insurance as part of their member benefits, though it usually just covers the loss of a limb.
Have you ever had to go to a hospital in a foreign country? Share your experience in the comments.